St. Croix, Chapter VII: The Renegade, Part Two

Photo courtesy of Lance Longwell, Travel Addicts
An ominous sign at Big Beard’s cookout spot. Photo courtesy of Lance Longwell, Travel Addicts

(NOTE: The St. Croix series chronicles my two extended stays in the U.S.V.I territory as a bar musician back in the mid-1990s.  Click the St. Croix tab to read other episodes.)

This episode is continued from St. Croix, Chapter VII: The Renegade.  

It’s 1:30 p.m., Monday, March 6, 1995.

“Okay, everyone!” Simpson shouts to the tourists who are seated in various places around the clearing. “Please put your messes in the trash bags and prepare to disembark. Don’t forget your sunglasses, your backpacks, or your husbands!”

It’s a joke I hear almost every day, and although cheesy, it’s not an unrealistic reminder. The rum punch began flowing about an hour ago and the already happy moods of the tourists are now even happier if not downright jovial. It’s not unusual for a sunburned landlubber, emboldened by the Cruzan rum, to wander into the manchineel trees on a mission to catch a mongoose by hand, or something else equally stupid.

After the groups have gathered up their various members, they stumble through the deep sand toward the anchored Renegade, a 42-foot catamaran and the most popular charter vessel on the island of St. Croix. As an honorary crew member, I help Simpson and first-mate Randy load up the coolers.

Simpson cranks the engines, shifts into reverse, and motors away from the private beach. Once safety in deep water, he shuts off the engines and raises the sails. The sheets billow with wind and we’re propelled west toward Christiansted.

Pleasantly full on hotdogs, hamburgers, grouper sandwiches, and rum punch, the tourists find their places on the boat. Some, like my snorkeling buddy, Shirley, chatter about their underwater adventures. Others simply pass out under the shade of their straw hats. Randy produces yet another 10-gallon cooler of chilled rum punch, makes the announcement, and an eager line forms in an instant.

I enjoy this part of the trip. The hours exposed to an intense Caribbean sun and a cool salty breeze, the exertion of free-diving into clear, 80-degree waters, and the deceptively sweet alcohol creates a slow-motion, otherwordly euphoria. The reality of commutes, deadlines, and staff meetings is a distant, slightly nagging, memory. Out here, senses are heightened and inhibitions drop to nothing.

Chrissie, the University of Texas sophomore in the blue-green bikini, is sunbathing again on the front netting of the Renegade. I brazenly join her. We chat about a variety of meaningless things, topics that are exhausted by the end of each sentence. She giggles at my lame jokes from behind tortoiseshell Ray Bans, her smile crinkling a spray of brown freckles across her nose. Salty sweat shines on her skin. I realize that my eyes, bold under the cover of mirrored shades, are lingering at her bikini top and I curse inwardly. Tourist girls vacationing with parents are off limits, I remind myself. Off limits! It’s an unspoken code among the locals. The young ex-pats who staff the gift shops, jewelry stores, restaurants, and bars are fair game to each other — every night results in multitude of fresh pairings — but the locals generally leave the tourists at arm’s reach. It’s bad for business otherwise.

It’s 3 p.m.

Simpson guides the Renegade into its moorings where crew members tie it off to the deck cleats. The tourists off-load and began searching through the pile of shoes for theirs, some of them stumbling as they bend over, their imbalance courtesy of the rum punch. Many either shake my hand or give me a bear hug, promising that they will attend my show tonight at the Moonraker. Chrissie neither hugs me or shakes my hand. She simply smiles and waves, wiggling her tan fingers as she peeks over her shoulder. She and her parents soon disappear around the corner.

It’s bad for business, I remind myself again.

As I walk back to the Moonraker, the streets of Christiansted are lively with tourists loading up on duty-free liquor, jewelry, and other loot. As I reach the intersection of King Cross Street and Strand Street, I approach a street beggar the locals refer to as “Quarter Man.” At some point, he must have determined that soliciting quarters rather than some other denomination is most productive in his line of work, so every person that passes is met with, “Quarter? Got a quarter?” Quarter Man is tall and bony, deep black, has glassy, yellow eyes and ancient dreadlocks. He is all Rasta and smells like 100-year-old weed.

As I walk past, he turns to me. “Quar…” He stops as soon as he recognizes me as the singer at the Moonraker.  He surmised some weeks ago that his daily income likely far outweighs mine and quit hitting me up for quarters. I am dismissed with snort and a wave of his bony hand.

“Take it easy, Quarter Man,” I say with a grin and flip-flop myself across the street.

It’s five minutes later and I’m collapsed on the bed of my ratty apartment. I’ve got about four hours to nap, change my guitar strings, have dinner, and grab a shower before the patrons begin filling the chairs and barstools of my club. I try to fall asleep, but can’t. I’m tired but wired, nervous at the thought of my first song.

Will I remember the words to “Uncle John’s Band” this time? Will my voice crack on chorus of “Southern Cross,” or will I miss the low note on “Handy Man” again? Will I recall the weird chord pattern of the bridge of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” before it crumbles into a train wreck? I hope they don’t ask for Dylan. Or Pink Floyd. Or any of the Buffett songs that I DON’T do.

These are the same anxious thoughts that I have every day, about this time, six days a week.

But tonight, Chrissie might show up. Shit

To be continued…

Epic Disney trip video goes viral

It rained Wednesday morning at Hollywood Studios, but we didn't care because we were rockin' multicolored ponchos.
It rained Wednesday morning at Hollywood Studios, but we didn’t care because we were rockin’ multicolored ponchos.

Well, awritesmart.com readers, this is a tale of the unexpected. Late last week, I uploaded the little video I made of our Disney trip to YouTube simply so I could embed it into my recent post, The Top 9 Tips/Observations from a Disney First-Timer. I had no expectations that anyone would see it or care at all.

Well, brace yourselves.

Today, the video has been featured on two national media websites: Inside Edition and Right This Minute.

WHAA…??!

The lesson here is, expect ANYTHING when you post a video to YouTube.

Check ’em out and let me know what you think.

St. Croix, Chapter VII: The Renegade

 

The Renegade anchored off of Turtle Beach. (Photo courtesy of John Macy.)
The Renegade anchored off of Turtle Beach. (Photo courtesy of John Macy and bigbeards.com.)

(NOTE: The St. Croix series chronicles my two extended stays in the U.S.V.I territory as a bar musician back in the mid-1990s.  This episode is continued from St. Croix, Chapter VI: The Burglar)

It’s 6:55 a.m., Monday, March 6, 1995.

I awake to the rattling hum of the decade-old, window-mounted air conditioner. Even this early, the tropical sun on the tin roof of the Moonraker is already generating more heat than the A/C unit can handle and it whines in protest. Before long, I’ll have to chip off the block of ice that grows like a shiny white tumor on the side of the unit, threatening to cover the air intake.

I roll out of bed with a moan, my head throbbing and my fingertips still sore from four straight hours of guitar playing. Like most nights on the island, the last one ended much too late. Or early, if you’re being technical. I got about three hours of sleep.

Even though I’m a lightweight drinker as Crucians go, I have developed more alcohol tolerance over the past few weeks than usual. It’s impossible not to, frankly. Among the younger island folk and expatriates here in St. Croix, drinking and partying to excess is a daily goal, and as the nightly entertainment at the primary night club in Christiansted, I’m at the center of the vortex.

I brush my teeth, and pull on my swim trunks, a clean tee, and flip-flops. I stuff a beach towel into my backpack along with a Larry McMurtry novel, a bottle of sunblock that I won’t use, and my snorkeling gear, which I will. I grab 10 one dollar bills from last night’s tip jar and stash them in the backpack, too.

After locking up, I make my way down the steps of the now-defunct Moonraker Hotel and into the courtyard where geckos scatter among the leaves of the enormous mango tree. I use my key to open the wrought iron gate. Its squeak is the only sound on the street this morning.

I’m running a little late, so I double-time it down side streets and alleys to the Twin City Shop Coffee House. It’s the only place open this time of day where I can grab some breakfast for the boat. As usual, I purchase a danish and a bottle of apple juice. I’m in and out in less than a minute.

I continue down King Street until it terminates at the harbor. My friend, Lisa, is opening her small jewelry shop as I walk past, so I slow down long enough to make a little small talk. But not much because, like I said, I’m running late.

“It’s a hard life you have,”she says with a grin. I shrug and say, “It’s a living.”

I continue east along the boardwalk.

My ride for the day comes into view: the 42-foot catamaran Renegade, the pride of Captain Bigbeard’s charter fleet. (He only has two boats, but this one is best.) Bigbeard — or John Macy, as he’s known to his mother — is helping the guests aboard. There is a pile of shoes beside the gangplank because you go barefoot on the boat. I add my flops to the pile, wait until everyone else is on, and then it’s my turn. I get on and find an empty seat among some 20 tourists.

It’s 7:45 a.m.

John starts his speech. He welcomes everyone, covers a few safety housekeeping items, makes a stale joke about falling overboard, and introduces the crew: Captain Simpson and his mate for the day, an amiable New Yorker named Randy.

“We’ve got a special guest with us today, too,” continues John, his enormous and quite famous beard swaying in the ocean breeze. “Mark Johnson, our Moonraker entertainer, is making the trip today, so be sure to get to know him.” I wave to everyone and say howdy. John has learned that its good business for me to go on this day trip to Buck Island, because the people I get to know will then come see me play for the rest of the week. John, you see, owns both the charter business and the bar.

The boss says his goodbyes, steps off the boat, and turns it over to Simpson. The engine cranks and we motor off into the harbor and out into the Caribbean Sea, heading east.

A cute brunette in her early 20s, I figure, is on board and seated with an older couple. I assume these are her parents, so I study the situation for several minutes behind the relative safety of my sunglasses, pretending to read my book. The girl affects an air of aloof royalty, aware of her status on the boat as the only young, good-looking female. Some of the older men are studiously trying not to look in her direction. Their wives make conversation with narrowed eyes, glancing toward the girl.

Mark on the Renegade
An out-of-focus, primitive selfie as we motor out to Buck Island, Capt. Simpson at the wheel. I used $6 disposable Kodak cameras back then.

I bide my time, waiting for the right moment. I’m conscious of the fact that my long hair is a glaring red flag for any father of an attractive daughter, but I’m armed with three secret weapons: my Southern accent, my background, and my manners.

As the Renegade glides past Protestant Cay, I walk over and introduce myself to the family, affecting enough of my Appalachian drawl to be disarming but not off-putting. Where are y’all from, I ask. Texas, the Dad says. Sounds like you’re from the South yourself, he adds. I tell him that indeed I am, having grown up on a Christmas tree farm in the North Carolina mountains.

Boom! The defenses drop. Dad now likes me, because how can you have a problem with a North Carolina mountain boy from a Christmas tree farm who says yes sir and no sir? I drop in a few yes ma’ams and no ma’ams to the Mom to cement my new, inner-circle status with Dan, Marie, and Chrissie from San Antonio. Chrissie is a University of Texas sophomore. She smiles hello to me and turns her head to gaze somewhere else.

The trip is more than an hour from the dock to Buck Island, ranked by National Geographic as one of the worlds most beautiful beaches. After several minutes of innocuous conversation with the Texans, I excuse myself back to my seat and open my book. Occasionally, I catch Chrissie peeking at me, but I don’t react. It’s still early in the day, early in the week, and I’ve got nothing but time.

It’s 9 a.m.

We arrive at Buck Island and anchor offshore for snorkeling lessons. Randy hands out equipment to the tourists and gives them a quick tutorial. Is anyone concerned about snorkeling, he asks. A 60-something-year-old lady named Shirley, part of a group of chattering older women from Wisconsin, says she’s never been and is nervous. I quickly volunteer to be her “buddy” and give her lessons.

Chrissie looks at me, smiles, and whispers something to her mother.

We make our way down the Renegade’s ladder and slip into the cool water. Shirley is awkward at first, but I show her how easy it is to breath through the snorkel. Pretty soon, she gets the hang of it and begins to excitedly report what she is seeing every few minutes. One of the resident sting rays glides underneath us, only a few feet below, and Shirley exclaims under water, startling the otherwise calm ray. It swims off in a hurry.

Soon the lessons are complete and we load back up and motor around to the east side of the island where the underwater trail is located. Emboldened by her newfound prowess in the water, Shirley jumps in, giggling. The two of us make our way through the trail, marked by various concrete placards on the sea floor. I point these out as we swim and Shirley responds with an enthusiastic thumbs up.

All manner of brazenly colored fish swim below us: blue tang, parrotfish, damselfish, angelfish, butterfly fish, trunkfish, puffers, you name it. Shirley is enchanted. When we finally climb the rope ladder back into the boat, she is all smiles beneath a wet mass of silver gray hair. “Thanks, buddy!” she exclaims and wraps me in a bosomy hug. She promises in a loud voice to come to my show tonight.

I catch Chrissie peeking at me again. As we get underway, this time by sail instead of motor, the Texan peels off her t-shirt and walks to the front of the cat to spread a blanket over the netting that separates the two pontoons. She’s wearing a blue-green string bikini that I would be uncomfortable with if I were Dan, her father. She lies on her back in the classic sunbathing pose, placing her arms along her hips, one knee up, Ray-bans on, a whisp of dried salt across the top of her breasts.

I try not to notice. At least, not enough for anyone to notice me noticing.

The breeze pulls our sails toward the main island as Simpson stoically tacks the Renegade back and forth. People are tired but excited about telling their snorkeling stories to one another. In a half hour, we anchor about 20 feet offshore of the secluded Turtle Beach. I help Simpson and Randy carry several coolers through the surf to a narrow beach piled deep with pinkish sand. It’s difficult to walk through the sand with a heavy load.

The Renegade now empty, we lug the coolers into a picnic area cleared within a grove of palms and manchineel trees. Ever efficient, Simpson lights charcoal in a grill and begins to arrange burgers, hotdogs, and chunks of fresh-caught grouper in his staging area. Randy is busy filling 10-gallon Igloo coolers with rum punch. The activity attracts a host of mongooses, materializing from the flora like little brown ghosts with wiggling noses that constantly test the air.

“Awww, look at how cute they are,” coos Chrissie, squatting on her heels with a hand outstretched toward a sniffing mongoose. Her t-shirt has now been abandoned entirely in favor of the bikini.

It’s 11:50 a.m.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

The Top 9 Tips/Observations of a Disney First-Timer

Cinderella's castle with the Johnsons
This was our first of many selfies of the week. Had to do it… (My head isn’t this big in real life, by the way. It’s Holly’s camera’s fault.)

On Feb. 21, 2016, my family embarked on an earth-shattering, mind-bending, week-long, first-time-ever vacation at the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney World. It is now about a week and a half since we returned, and I’m writing the blog that I promised myself I would write. It has taken me this long to wrap my head around everything.

Kind of.

First, a little bit of context. Our kids are 15 (Sam), 14 (Ava), and 8 (Pete). In the entire history of Us, we had been, prior to Disney, to these places on “vacation”:

  1. 2010: Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, for two days. It was fun, but the park felt a little worn out and, frankly, a lot like 1987. Plus, Pete had The Runs, our hotel room was one step above a Motel 6, and the people in the room above us apparently decided to conduct a Riverdance competition at 1 a.m.
  2. 2011: Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for about a week. We shared a cabin with around 10 other family members. Again, fun and memorable, but more of a family reunion than a family vacation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  3. 2012: Chattanooga, Tenn., for two days. We went to Rock City, which was cool but slightly bizarre. You can see, like, 37 other states from up there and Travelocity gnomes are hiding behind rocks. It also felt like 1987, incidentally.
  4. AND, 2012: Murfreesboro, Tenn. We rounded out the other four days of the Chattanooga vacation with a STAY-cation. Have you heard of this trend? We stayed at home. On vacation.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been blessed to go to those places, no doubt, but these trips have never been EPIC. Since Sam and Ava were toddlers, we’ve been making grandiose, sweeping promises about taking them to Disney. At some point, we realized we were being fools (no money, no time) and stopped, but Sam kept reminding us, year after year. In fact, he perfected his very advanced grasp of sarcasm, I’m convinced, entirely through his Disney interrogations. “So, is THIS the year we [using finger quotes] GO TO DISNEY?” he would ask after the ball would drop on New Year’s Eve.  I would respond by mumbling something about my work schedule before slithering out of the room with my plastic wine glass of sparkling cider.

So, in around October 2014, Holly and I decided enough was enough. Our AdvoCare business was beginning to gather steam, so we decided to sink all of our earnings for the next year into a savings account, take the leap by making a deposit, and make it happen. We did and it did. Best of all, we blew the cynical minds of our children by loading them in the pickup truck under the guise of heading to church one Sunday morning only to reveal that our destination was substantially farther away and more fun. (Even God would have to admit that Disney World is a little more fun than church, if He’s being honest.) A video of The Reveal is at the end of this blog.

ANYway, here are, in no particular order except for No. 1, my Top 9 Tips/Observations of a Disney First-Timer:

9. The fun starts with the MagicBands. Have you seen these things? They look like a Fitbit with Mickey’s head. Disney sent them to us about a month before our trip and, shockingly, Pete brought the box in with the rest of the mail. When I realized what was contained within that box sitting on the kitchen table with the kids standing all around, I grabbed it and skulked away upstairs like the construction worker who finds the box containing the Looney Tunes singing frog. The surprise was almost blown right then.

Each of the five bands was a different color and had our names printed on the back, which is crazy. In function, they are nearly miraculous. They get you into the park, onto rides, into restaurants and illicit speakeasys (kidding), and into huge debt by the end of the week because you can buy Disney merchandise with them and it’s fun. I tried using mine to perform a Jedi Mind Trick on somebody, but that didn’t work.

8. The food is great, but who cares? Seriously, when you eat at one of the nicer park restaurants, the food is secondary. They could serve you cow chips and snot beans and you wouldn’t notice because the environment is so cool. We ate lunch one day at “Be Our Guest,” a Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant at Magic Kingdom, and I had to convince myself that I wasn’t actually having a turkey-and-cheddar melt in the Beast’s castle. (I don’t recall Belle eating that in the movie, though.)

pluto1MED
This was at a cool restaurant at Epcot. Mickey snuck up behind us. Pluto was pissed when he saw the picture later.

7.  Wait until your kids are old enough. First of all, I didn’t know that many strollers existed in the entire galaxy. Could there be any more? But this begs the questions: why are so many parents (well-meaning, no doubt) paying huge sums of money to stroll their TINY NEW-BORN BABIES around the Magic Kingdom? For the purposes of that child’s memory, the city park or even Home Depot would be equally effective, not to mention free. People, unless you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, for goodness sakes, wait until your child is OLD ENOUGH to remember being photobombed by Mickey (see image), freaked out by the Haunted Mansion singing heads, or enchanted by the castle fireworks. Otherwise, wasted opportunity.

(A point of clarification about this tip: I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who has never been able to go to Disney until now — and who knows when we can go back — so I wanted to be sure that my kids have these memories cemented into their brains. If you’re blessed with the resources to go several times, then by all means, take your baby! There’s no bad age for Disney. But if it’s a one-shot deal, I’d consider waiting until your child is a little older.)

6. No matter what you have to do, obtain FAST PASSES. The Fast Pass is Disney’s version of flying First Class. It’s awesome, because you get to act very superior and smug as you tap your MagicBand against that other Mickey thingy (at the entrance) that turns green and allows you stroll past the hordes of peasants…I mean, people decomposing in the Stand-by line to advance to the front of the queue, which in some cases, is roughly the length of the Nile River. Sell your blood, rent out your dog, do whatever you have to do to make the money, but GET FAST PASSES. This is non-negotiable. (Update: A reader very astutely pointed out that Fast Passes are, in fact, free. Since I’m obviously not a Disney professional, I won’t dispute this. I know that we got three of them free each day with our tickets, but I’m not sure how it works for people who just show up as opposed to those staying in Disney resorts. All I know is, I would’ve hated to have been without them.)

5. Stay at a Disney resort. There are myriad reasons to do this, but one of the best is the fact that you get free transportation to and from the parks. This is like another version of the Fast Pass, but in transportation form. You get to be smug as your bus breezes past the poor sots who are actually DRIVING THEMSELVES into the parks and drops you off at the entrance like a movie star. (Along with 35 other movie stars on your bus.)

4. Your feet think you’re on the Bataan Death March. Do this: About six weeks prior to your vacation, purchase the most expensive pair of walking shoes you can afford and start walking several miles per day. By the end of the second day of your vacation, your feet will thank you eternally. You think I’m kidding, but Disney requires training, much like the Tough Mudder. In fact, standing in the Pirates of the Caribbean line should be a Tough Mudder obstacle, I think.

3. “Expedition Everest” rocks. This roller coaster, located at Animal Kingdom, is the coolest thing ever. Not only does the waiting line take you through a fascinating replication of a Katmandu out building, but Yeti himself (white Bigfoot, not a cooler) makes an appearance during the ride, “destroys” the track, and forces the train to go backwards. (I tried to get a photo of the Yeti, but it all happened so fast…) The Everest roller coaster was my favorite ride not counting the Haunted Mansion, because everybody knows that the Haunted Mansion is the greatest ride ever.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Pete: “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be…”

2. On a personal note, my son, Pete, becomes a fainting goat on a roller coaster. It’s true! You never know how kids will react to a scary ride. Pete surprised us all by simply shutting down all systems and playing dead as a defense mechanism. Or maybe he was just deep in prayer. Remember that kid in all your yearbook pictures that appears to be sleeping in every shot because he kept blinking at the wrong time? This is Pete is every roller coaster picture. (But if you look closely, you’ll notice his hands, white-knuckled, gripping the safety bar like a bald eagle clinging to a lake trout.)

And my No. 1 Tip/Observation of a Disney First-Timer…

1. Disney IS all it’s cut out to be. Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t actually used the word “magical” in a sentence since I was 7, but it’s undeniable: Disney World IS magical. Like, seriously. The Disney staff practices the Dark Arts, like Gandalf or Voldemort, and crazy things happen.

So, I don’t know what life has in store for us from here on out, but Holly and I can rest easy with the knowledge that we implanted these amazing, epic memories into the impressionable brains of our children. Sure, there are a zillion people there at all times, many of whom are rolling baby strollers over your aching toes. Sure, you’ll have to wait in line for stuff and some of it is cheesy and you were never really into Mickey Mouse. But that’s OK because you made it. You reached the American Vacation Promised Land in your version of the Family Truckster and the park was open.

Clark Griswold weeps tears of joy for you.

Watch this video to witness our “reveal” and a few other things.

More updates! After posting my original video (above), several national news sources somehow got ahold of it. So far, it’s been featured on Inside Edition and a very cool show called Right This Minute. Here are their takes on our story…

And so that was Christmas…

Back into your sad box, Santa, for another 11 months.
Back into your sad box, Santa, for another 11 months.

It’s January 2 and Christmas is officially over.

Sigh.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t such an unceremonious ending. You’ve got four or five weeks of slowly climbing that first big hill of the rollercoaster — tick, tick, tick — and the climactic pay-off happens. You top the hill, hands raised, and fly down the other side with the opening of gifts Christmas morning.

And then, at about 9 a.m., GOOD FEELING GONE! Hunched over, the kids retreat to their respective rooms with their loot, the way the janitor skulked away with the box containing the singing Looney Tunes frog. After that, they only appear for an occasional meal before disappearing for another two days.

There’s no gentle let-down to the end of Christmas. There’s no coasting back into the roller coaster starting “shack” with your hair blown back, laughing. Instead, the coaster suddenly stops, throwing everybody forward against their restraints, and some rude person unsnaps you and tells you to get off.

New Year’s Eve helps a little, I guess, but only because it’s a sanctioned holiday and we get another couple days off. There’s really no more to it than that, unless you live in New York City and you’re 25. Good will toward men? No, not really. The good will has mainly to do with champaign, noise-makers, and old people watching young people give each other tonsillectomies on TV for about five uninteresting minutes to the strains of some band nobody has ever heard of before beelining to their beds with cheap sparkling cider on their breath.

But just a week and a day ago, the world was 100% different. It was twinklely (as Rainman would say), emotional, musical, and poignant, all rolled into one. Your house was colorful and basking in the glow of hundreds of miniature bulbs. Every available surface contained some weird combination of Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, and Jesus, but it was OK. We were holding up candles in church, singing carols, and cruising through the neighborhoods with the best Christmas displays.

But now? Not. All the lights are down or unplugged because it’s a little redneck to leave them up past New Year’s Day. The decorations have been stuffed back into crates and your house returned to its boring old self. The excitement of opening your new Fitbit has subsided and now you’re faced with the realization that you have to actually USE it. Worse still, all those awesome sweets and goodies you made are gone and there’s no more excuses to ignore your usual healthy eating routine.

I guess January is kind of like the Monday of the year. It’s back to work, and you’ve got to make it through another 11 months until the fun starts again.

The age-old question is this: How do we make that Christmas feeling last throughout the year?

After giving this some serious thought — like for about four seconds — I’ve come up with this. It’s easy to get into the Christmas spirit at Christmastime because the entire Christian world is doing it, too. It’s like doing Crossfit. If you’re me, there’s NO WAY you’re going to do that stuff alone in your own garage. But surrounded by a couple dozen other people doing it at the same time, it becomes a lot more doable. Christmas comes with the greatest support group in the world, so it’s easy to do.

But then, just like that, the support group is gone and you’re on your own in the garage trying to squeeze out 10 pushups. My unsolicited advice is this: you have to make a conscious decision to make that Christmasy, good-will-toward-man-feeling happen during other parts of the year. I know it sounds weird, but maybe we should buy some stranger’s coffee at the Starbuck’s drive-through in, say, May. Or call some long-lost friend or relative in September and tell them you love them. Why is this behavior only restricted to December?!

It’s crazy talk, I know.

But that’s my wish for you, oh reader of awritesmart.com: That you can bottle just a smidgen of Christmas spirit, squirrel it away in your pocket, and spring it on somebody at the most un-Christmasy moment this year. Who knows what kind of revolution of good will we could create?

It’s worth a try, yes? OK, good. Report back here with your non-December Christmas adventures.

And oh, I almost forgot. Happy New Year!

This year, Scrooge lives in my home

 

scrooge

As I’ve said before, I try to be transparent and real in this blog. I’ve been debating writing this, but I think it might make me feel better, and I really need your help.

Here goes…

From my earliest memories, I’ve been a Christmas buff. I can’t recall any year or period of time when I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of joy during the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.

But this year is different. My oldest son, Sam, has recently turned 15, and the exuberant little boy I used to know has morphed into a sullen teenager. He has essentially checked out of the family, choosing instead, his Xbox and remote Xbox cohorts. (He calls them “friends,” but when the conversation is limited to what kind of weaponry they are constructing or trick shot they are using to blast the enemy soldier, and they are only faceless, far-away voices on a headset, I refuse to use that word.)

Sure, I’ve suspected this was coming. I’ve read all the books and seen all the TV shows and movies. I’ve also watched my 13-year-old daughter become obsessed with middle-school girl drama, complaining over every little perceived slur or “hateful” glance perpetrated by one of her contemporaries. I get it; it’s the teenage thing.

But this is different. Sam has lost the joy of Christmas.

Maybe the fact that I was raised in the Christmas tree industry injected me with some sort of magic dust that made the holiday more intense for me than others. I don’t know. But I can tell you that even after Santa stopped coming to my house, back when I was around 11, my excitement about Christmas was undiminished. I still had — and still do — trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve. The sound and feel of the house has remained different somehow when I awake Christmas morning. At nearly 50, I remain convinced that there is some kind of unexplainable, mystical magic that occurs on Christmas, and each year, the birth of Christ and the image of a child, the King of Kings, lying in a manger increases in its poignancy and meaning for me. Even at the peak of my sullen, teenage years, I was a giddy kid at Christmas.

But Sam is not. He seems indifferent, is uninterested in eggnog or hot chocolate (unless he can take it back to his room), “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Story,” and could barely be bothered to help decorate the tree.

I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve never experienced a Christmas season like this one and I’m at a loss of how to proceed.

Have you dealt with this? What should Holly and I do? What action can we take that won’t ruin Christmas for everybody else, especially Sam’s 8-year-old little brother, Pete, for whom the magic of Santa and Christmas is still alive and well?

It took Ebenezer Scrooge an overnight visit from three ghosts for him to realize that time on this earth is short. I’m not sure I can pull off that scenario for Sam, so I need your ideas.

Many thanks.

 

The Top 8 Reasons why Christmas in the ’70s was Awesome

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We didn’t really get the whole dentist elf story line, but we went with it. It was the ’70s.

It’s no surprise that people tend to view the decade of their childhood as the best. As kids, we look at the world with innocence and wonder through formative eyes that are focused mostly on the good things in the world rather than the bad. The popular culture of the day is what helps form us into the adult we later become. Every decade, therefore, is somebody’s favorite and rightly so.

All that crap said, the ’70s were clearly the best for everything.

I began the ’70s as a 4-year-old and ended them at 14, so almost all of my growing up memories were forged during that decade. Isn’t it interesting that Christmas seems to claim more than its fair percentage of our memory banks? A lot of what I can recall from my childhood has to do with Christmastime.

So let’s jump right into it. Here are my Top 8 reasons why Christmas in the ’70s was awesome.

8. It was still OK to call it Christmas  Ahh, the good old days. Bruce Jenner was a hero because he won the Decathlon at the Olympics and you could freely say “Merry Christmas” without fear of someone suing you over it. All was right with the world.

7. The Malls  In those days, malls were still a fairly new concept. Though the enclosed mall was introduced in the 1950s, malls as we know them hit their strides in the ’70s. They were still family oriented and friendly as opposed to the hoodlum hangouts many have become today. There was nothing more wonderful for an 8-year-old than to enter the mall on a cold December evening, holding hands with Mom or Dad, and be greeted by the friendly voice of Andy Williams echoing through the warm, cavernous building and the almost blinding glare of silver and gold decor everywhere you looked. In the mall where we shopped in Raleigh, N.C., there was a department store that created a children’s shopping section that only they could enter — no grownups allowed. There were crafty knick-knack stores that played dulcimer music and smelled like fir boughs. There were long lines waiting for a visit with Santa, and when they took your picture, it was a real print on quality photo paper (as opposed to the digital crap-ola they give you now). It was also fun to slip into Spencer’s when your parents thought you were in Kaybee Toys, innocently find yourself in the forbidden, glowing back of the store, and inspect the fuzzy, risqué, blacklight posters under the guise of searching for an age-appropriate unicorn or black leopard. I’m pretty sure most pre-teen boys received their sexual educations in the ’70s by simply perusing the back aisles of Spencer’s.

6.  The Music  When it comes to Christmas music, I’d argue that there was a 30-year block of time between 1950 and 1980 that was responsible for most of the best. Classic recordings by Crosby, Cole, Como, Mathis, Williams, Autry, Ives, Guaraldi, Lee, and Sinatra — all produced between 1950 and 1970 — pretty much set us up for the next millennium, but Christmas radio in the 1970s was great because a few new classics were added (a caterwauling Yoko Ono not withstanding) to an already perfect lineup of songs. We didn’t yet have the clutter of all the modern music remakes that would come in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which I view as throwaways. (For what I consider the best, see my list, “The Top 15 Indispensable Christmas Songs.”)

5. The Absence of Black Friday and Cyber Monday   In the ’70s, Christmas shopping was a community event and it was generally completed, start to finish, over the last couple weeks before the holiday. Unless you were ordering stuff from a Sears or Montgomery (Monkey) Ward catalogue — and nobody I knew did this for Christmas — you physically ventured out into the world to get your stuff. But we didn’t all go on the same dang day. And nobody went at midnight, turkey grease still gleaming on our chins. Were there unfriendly people and crazy traffic? Sure. But there were even more people in festive moods, holding doors for one another and offering “Merry Christmas” with gusto.

4. The Gifts  It seems to me that popular culture of the past three decades has shaved at least four years off of kid-dom and added that onto the beginning of adulthood. Gone, practically, are the activity-and-imagination-inducing gifts of the ’70s — skateboards, ball gloves, banana-seat bikes, Light-Brite sets, dollhouses, football jerseys and helmets, fishing poles, and the rare Atari Pong — only to be replaced by Visa gift cards, iPhones, and an avalanche of Pong’s invasive descendants: Call of Duty, Halo, Black Ops, and other war games. In the ’70s, we were simply trying to get a blip past the other guy’s paddle blip. Now we’re blowing people away. In the ’70s, Christmas afternoon happened outside with your buddies or your siblings. In the 2010s, more often than not, it happens alone on a screen device in your bedroom. Point, ’70s.

3. The Tree Lots  This one is personal and it’s not so much a comparison as a recollection. Some of you may know that I grew up on a Christmas tree farm and my family has sold trees since the late ’60s in the Raleigh area. So it’s no surprise that my earliest childhood memories often include the chilly days and nights I spent running amuck on our Christmas tree lot, playing tag with my sister and brother among the forest of Fraser firs and white pines before retreating to the “elf house” for a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a lecture from my Dad about staying out of the way of customers. There was always Charlie Brown music combined with the drone of traffic and chain saws, twinkling light strings, velvet bows, miniature candy canes, split-rail fence, and trash cans bursting with baling twine and Burger King bags. Even after I was old enough to be drafted into employment on the lot, the atmosphere was jolly, the Christmas spirit was rampant, and we all went home exhausted but happy, smelling like an evergreen tree. Life was good and all my friends thought it was cool that my family grew and sold Christmas trees, as if I had an inside connection to Santa himself.

2. The TV specials  Much like shopping, TV viewing in the ’70s was a community event. There were three stations (four, counting PBS if you could get it) and no VCRs, DVRs, OnDemand, or anything like that, so the entire country watched the same shows at the same time and millions of toilets flushed in unison during commercials. There was nothing, I mean, NOTHING more exciting for a ’70s kid than seeing “the following is a special presentation” come across the screen of your giant, console TV screen at 7 p.m in early December. You knew that meant that either Burl Ives as a snowman or the Grinch or Charlie Brown or a Fred Astaire mailman were soon to follow. The claymation Rankin/Bass specials were still new and they were magical, if not a little bit freaky. The Abominable Snowman in Rudolph scared the crap out of us until his teeth were weirdly extracted. We wept with the doll on the island of misfit toys, although we never really understood that story line, or that of Hermey, the sadistic dentist elf, or why Rudolph’s dad, the coach, and Santa himself were all a-holes. We loved the Grinch animation because it was done by the same guy (Chuck Jones) who created the best Looney Tunes cartoons. (But of course, we didn’t know that fact. We just felt it.) We loved watching Kris Kringle grow his beard and get fat, and we were slightly confused by how the Winter Warlock was as big as a mountain at first but then became only a little taller than everybody else. But it was cool and we moved on. And of course, we giggled at how Pig Pen created a cloud of dust every time he inhaled during “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” But we also felt a little inappropriate for laughing at him. (See my “Top 10 Christmas Shows.) The entire experience of Christmas in the ’70s was intertwined with these shows — they were all we had. Sure, they still show these specials in the 2010s, but it’s difficult for them to captivate today’s CGI-hardened kiddos in the same way. Back then, they were game-changers.

1. Santa still came  Yes, I know Santa still comes in the 2010s, but for me, he stopped leaving unwrapped gifts in the ’80s. In the ’70s, however, SC made distinct little piles of goodies for each of the three of us, and we instinctively knew which pile was which. One of us, usually me, would wake up well before daylight and lay there desperately searching the sky for any glimmer of sunrise and comparing every house noise against my mental archive of Santa or reindeer sounds. (A little context here: After the Great Christmas Debacle of 1977 — when we convinced each other it was morning at, like, 4 a.m. and prematurely launched the ship — a daylight rule was quickly established by the management.) When, after the committee of three had concluded that it was, in fact, morning enough, we would ease downstairs and into the darkened living room. Bedlam would ensue because SANTA HAD COME! It was, hands down, the best 10 seconds of the entire kid year.

Come to think of it, it was probably the best 10 seconds ever.

Merry Christmas to you and your families, and THANK YOU for reading my blogs this year! Leave your Christmas memories of YOUR favorite decade in the comment section below.

 

Running up hill: A guest blog

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Rob Rowland

By Awritesmart.com guest contributor, Rob Rowland (thanks so much, Rob!)
Member: CrossFit Wangaratta, Northeast Victoria, Australia

Just finished the 400 metre jog, into some push ups, a few body weight squats and finish with some sit ups, need a drink, sweating a fair bit, hands on my knees bent over gasping for air (see photo). I tell myself “it will be ok, you won’t die”. Thank God the warm up is finished.

Is this another typical CrossFit class for me? No. But this is sure how I felt when I first started CrossFit well over twelve months ago. Like a lot of us who are just on the right side of 50 for a little while longer, I had grown complacent and excepting of the poor health and fitness level I had slipped to steadily over the years. I could blame it on moving from a physical job to sitting behind a desk for the last ten or so years, I could blame it on finishing my footy playing days, I could blame it on being busy at work, getting a bit older, etc, etc, or I could just face the facts and except that I had become lazy and content, I had settled comfortably into my lethargic lifestyle.

Below is a bit about CrossFit through my eyes. We probably all see and experience CrossFit a bit differently from each other, but ultimately the goal of health, fitness and enjoying life is the same for all of us.

I’m not one for swearing in public so when you come across this, #!#% just replace it with a word that you feel suits best.

I was down at “CrossFit Wangaratta” thanks to an introduction via a friend Ian Paydon, wasn’t sure what I was in for but keen to give it a go, let’s get started…………  Well #!#% me, “welcome back to life Rob” and that was only doing half a workout to start with, sure had a long way to go.

The good thing was that the coaches were very careful to judge where I was at physically and make sure I could make it back for the next class, so I could keep the momentum going (or get it underway). Steadily I started to regain some of the fitness and mobility I used to have, learning new moves with barbell, running again, doing bodyweight exercises, all along with the support and encouragement of the coaches James, De and Sally (and all the other CrossFitter’s). It was great, the coaches take real pride and personal involvement in your wellbeing and give it their best to help you on the road to achieving your goals. They each have their own strengths, methods and personalities and you will find yourself getting something from all of them.

Some CrossFitter’s take to the quiet approach, a calm response, the technical answer, others need positive feedback, some need firm encouragement and some thrive on being revved up and spurred on to push themselves further. For me, it is just having someone there to make sure I do the work, get up me when I need a bit of a push along, teach me correct technique and pull me up when my form is going bad. These guys are pretty good at sensing where you are at on the day, they seem to know when you need the extra encouragement, or when to pull you up because you are going beyond your capacity or ability, sometimes your ego may want you to do more than you can or should.

In my early days at the box, James would tell me I need to get rid of the “Old man mentality”, “you come in Rob and you have this can’t do look written all over your face, stop thinking negatively and enjoy it”. Once you get your mind working positively, everything gets that bit more rewarding (not easier to do, but easier to deal with), you start to really get into it, heaven forbid, you even start enjoying exercise again, don’t laugh, its actually possible.

Back into the WOD now and there is running on the white board, I am not going to be as bold as to call what I do “running” but never the less, out to the road, off we go, one foot in front of the other. If you have ever been down in Browning Street in Wangaratta where all this running is done, you would swear it is one of the flattest streets in town, but when I run down that road, let me guarantee you, to me this can feel like one of the steepest roads around, and what’s even worse is, when you slog your way up the hill to the turnaround point, you spin around, start to head back and all of a sudden, the return trip is just as steep, feels to me like I am “running up hill” both bloody ways.

On the run I am passed (and lapped) by a steady stream of local CrossFitters, some older than me (fit as #!#%), some half my age or younger, to be honest it doesn’t worry me at all how many people pass me (or the ones I never ever catch up to) because I am out having a go and making a change for the better, even at my current pace I am doing way more than I used to, which was zero. CrossFit is very addictive, no doubt about it, and one of the things that makes it so for me is the fact that it is, as competitive as much as it is about teamwork. Some strive to beat each other, some strive to better themselves and some strive to just make sure they complete the workout to the best of their ability. The one thing that is happening all the time though, is that you are all using each other’s energy to get the workout done, you might not even get close to keeping up with the person alongside of you, but them working hard keeps you going as well, and don’t think it just one way traffic, you are helping them also, even at my pace. It doesn’t matter where you finish, because as soon as you come through the door to attend the workout for the day you’ve had a little victory right there. The one thing you can count on is, that no matter where you are in the field, everyone there will be supporting you throughout.

Everyone is going to have their favourite exercise and for me the real joy of CrossFit is when lifting weights is on the whiteboard, I’m not sure what it is but I just absolutely love it. I haven’t done much of this in the past, especially the Olympic lifts, so it is all relatively new to me but it doesn’t take long to work out that lifting weights just makes you feel great, both physically and mentally, I can’t get enough of it. Part of the enjoyment also for me also is when we do the strength component of the session, you generally get to do work with a partner, this could mean someone my age or someone 30 years younger, male or female, it doesn’t matter who it is, you support, encourage and help each other, this mixed with some good conversation, some shit stirring and trying to lift or squat heavy stuff (there is also the getting fit and healthy bit mixed in there somewhere).

The other thing I will say about CrossFit is that when you have a few more years under your belt and perhaps a few restrictions or mobility issues, perhaps due to old work or sporting injuries, maybe from other things that have occurred during your life, you have to learn to give these restrictions due respect, you have to work out where your limitations are, listen to what your body is telling you, if it takes longer for you to warm up than the others (like me), so be it, if it prevents injury or increases mobility you just have do it. You have to make sure speak up, let the coaches know you can’t do something for a specific reason, let me assure you they will have an alternative exercise for you, just as challenging but within your mobility range (P.S slow running is not an injury, you still have to do it). There is always a risk to any form of physical activity, yes you may get injured if you don’t warm up properly (done that), you may injure yourself if you don’t follow the coaches instructions (done that too). You may just unfortunately strain a muscle or tear something, but this is part of putting yourself out there and joining in that thing called “Living”. You can get hurt doing most things, I played footy and certainly got injured doing that, went to work, got the odd cut and bruise there, went out Saturday nights, got hurt at that too (but I blame some dodgy drinks). I do know now though you need to have a go at something, it doesn’t have to be CrossFit if that’s not what you’re into, any form of exercise is great, “but you do have to have a go”, unfortunately I forgot this for a while and it makes the road back a bit harder.

James and I had a conversation about aims, goals, etc, back when I started, the conversation went something like “I think you will be able to get down to around 80 kilos eventually Rob.” My initial thoughts were “What planet is this bloke from.” Now as it turns out, James was fair dinkum (and correct) about the long term goal of 80 kilos, after learning how to push myself hard again and tackling things with a positive attitude, I now know, and feel that the initial goals James discussed are achievable, BUT only if I put in the effort, it all comes back to me in the end and this is how it has to be, others can’t do it for you, they can encourage, help and support you but you have to do the actual work yourself.

I will say my weight loss has been at a slow pace compared to some others but I am very happy with my results to date, extremely happy actually, but not satisfied by a long way , I have got a fair way to go and will take time. The bottom line is that James told me initially, that getting back to health and fitness for me will be 80% good clean eating (don’t like using the word diet) and 20% exercise, If I am honest with myself, I can’t say I have managed a consistent level at either of these as yet but it is about finding the balance, what does and doesn’t work for you, a level that you can stick with for the rest of your life, are there hurdles along the way, “shit yeah,” but nothing you can’t get over or work out a solution to.

The one area I had definitely under estimated was the mental challenge that CrossFit would give me, it’s a good challenge, don’t get me wrong, but a challenge none the less. Let’s face it getting yourself to exercise can be very tough, if it wasn’t then everybody would be fit, healthy and in great shape, and generally we are not. There are plenty of people who love to exercise, but unfortunately the majority are more like myself and have to force it to be a priority. CrossFit is making exercise something I want to do, rather than have to do. Some days though you just talk yourself out of it with your own negative thoughts, don’t want to go, too warm in bed, too comfy on the couch, busy at work, I can’t be bothered, etc, how long is the list. Then when you do go, sometimes you mentally defeat yourself before you start, it’s too hot, too cold, too hard, too sore this, too sore that, but if I face the facts, by not even taking on, or accepting that metal challenge in the first place for the last ten years and sitting on my backside, is what got me to the poor physical condition I was in before taking up CrossFit. This is why I say it is a good mental challenge, but a challenge none the less. It’s a bit like burpees I have found that once you except that they just have to be done, then they’re not so bad, just hard going for a while.

Now I am not a great one for social media with zero Facebook friends on my account, not real big on telephone conversation either, but I do enjoy getting out and talking face to face with real people and that’s what you get at “CrossFit Wangaratta”, going to the Box is about more than just going to exercise. The hardest thing you are going to have to contend with is remembering the names of all the new friends you will meet. I am not worried what side of 50 I am on, as long as I keep “running up hill”, although I now know it will get a little flatter each time I tackle it. I still have my hands on my knees gasping for air at the end of each and every WOD, but I know it takes a lot, lot more exercise to wear me out now.

As the years add up, the warm ups may have to get a little longer and there may have to be more focus on mobility as I move down the track, but either way I hope to be going to “CrossFit Wangaratta” for a many years to come.

Rob Rowland

(Note: Rob sent me this blog in response to my blog, “Crossfit and aging: the value is in the trying.”)

Why nature matters

Photo by Zach Dischner
Photo by Zach Dischner

It happens as we cruise through our 21st-century life, and it’s nobody’s fault in particular.

It happens while we spend eight hours a day in our brick office buildings, five days a week, most of a year;as we’re driving our air-conditioned vehicles down wide swaths of pavement flanked by stacks of apartment buildings and expanses of strip malls; while we’re having our teeth cleaned in sterile dentist offices; and as we stroll through the aisles of Whole Foods or Publix, filling our carts with sustenance as easily as picking a flower.

It happens as we hold glowing Xbox controllers in our hands, wiggling our thumbs to manipulate the movements of a digital human on our TV screens; while we recline in the plastic chair of a nail salon as another person paints our toenails; as we stare at a two-and-a-half hour movie about elves in a darkened, cinderblock theater; and as we sit at a conference room table with our co-workers, devoting 30 minutes of our lives to planning another such meeting.

It occurs as we zip across the country, 35,000 feet up in an aluminum and fiberglass tube with cold, strange-smelling oxygen pumped in for our benefit; while we wait impatiently for a microwave to finish scrambling the molecules of our cup ‘o soup; and as we watch intently, stretched out on our faux-leather couches, as an Alaskan man inspects his trapline during a Saturday marathon of “Mountain Men.”

If I’m being honest, it’s happening as I write these words and as you’re reading them.

We are losing a little bit more of our place in the natural world.

Most of us don’t care because we don’t think it affects us. We operate in a world of our own technological making, like the mother ship in the movie “Wall-E.” Nature equals the trees and rain we take occasional note of out our windows. Nature equals the lawns we buzz with our John Deere riding mowers before retreating back inside.

And that’s about it.

If we actually gave it even a smidgen of thought, we would be amazed at what’s going on out there. Amazed that large animals — some larger than us, even — are born, live, and die in the woods just outside our suburban homes. That each year, tiny hummingbirds and feather-light butterflies make epic, thousand-mile journeys to exotic, far off places, only to return to the exact Tennessee backyard the following season — without the benefit of GPS.

We would find it fascinating that each creature in this ecosystem consumes another and is, in turn, consumed by another. That with no technology at all and with no human assistance whatsoever, living things soar miles above the earth on thermal updrafts, swim at unthinkable depths in pure blackness, and construct intricate underground passageways and thoroughfares using their noses and feet as perfect tools. Comedies and tragedies that Shakespeare could only aspire to are daily played out in a square-foot patch of ground on a South Dakota prairie or a Louisiana bayou, likely never to be viewed by human eyes.

And what about those prairies and bayous? Or the extremes of the Rocky Mountains or the rolling Appalachians? Or the alien beauty hidden just beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea, or even the vast gorges, wetlands, and waterfalls beyond the sight-lines of the interstate highways right here in Tennessee?

Sure, there are some unpleasant things outside. There are mosquitos, snakes, spiders, thorns, wasps, and horseflies. (I’m scratching at chigger bites as I type.) There are even cougars, bears, wolves, and coyotes, depending upon where you live. Maybe even Sasquatches and skunk apes.

That’s OK. I’m not suggesting you embark upon an exploration of the great outdoors buck-naked and without preparation. But as humans, we have been purposefully equipped with the intelligence to deal with these things.

In my view, people were placed upon this earth to be a part of nature, not apart from it. I believe that God expects us to appreciate its majesty, utilize its renewable resources wisely, and pass its treasures along to our children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to serve as conscientious stewards of this, perhaps the greatest of His gifts, rather than to ignore it, keep it at arm’s length, and to leave its care to somebody else or to some government agency.

So, why does nature matter? You may have your own answer, but here’s mine:

Nature matters because it reminds us that there is something — or somebody — else infinitely more clever and creative than we. Man can make some pretty impressive things these days, but we still can’t make that.

While we often do our best to manipulate, circumvent, or hide it, nature nonetheless provides us with awe-inspiring beauty despite our best efforts, certainly not because of them. The only price of admission is acknowledgement and a little TLC, and that’s the least we can do.

So tomorrow, spend a little more time looking out rather than down. Devise a way to get yourself outside, if only for a few minutes more than usual.

And if you’re worried about mosquitoes, put on a little bug spray. I’ll bet that Mother Nature won’t hold it against you.

(Note: I’d love to hear why YOU believe nature does or doesn’t matter. Write it in the comment section!)

Happy birthda !!!

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Ever have that moment of panic?

Yesterday marked my sixth year of birthdays on Facebook. Dozens of friends, family members, and acquaintances saw my name in that little box in the right-hand column or were notified of my birthday and took the time to write me a birthday wish.

Some of them were eloquent paragraphs. Some were peppy, ended in multiple exclamation points, and included my name, which suggested more than just a copy and paste type of deal. (Admit it. You know you’ve done it before on those days when you have, like, six birthdays to acknowledge.)

Some didn’t even get the whole thing written: Happy birthda

But they were all appreciated. The entire day became a fun exercise of seeing who would be responsible for the next bright red box containing a white numeral 1 that appeared on my notifications icon. My dad would say it was like checking a rabbit trap.

This Facebook birthday thing is a phenomenon I’m still getting used to. Prior to Facebook, birthdays were celebrated with a nice dinner out with your family or, if you were a kid, going to the skate rink with your three best buds, having cake and ice cream, and opening a card from your Granny with a quarter taped inside. (The last part was also prior to cell phones, VCRs, microwaves, and perhaps even Pong.)

With Facebook, however, our birthdays are now shared with pretty much everybody we know, have ever known, and in some cases, don’t know at all. Many of my 139 well-wishes yesterday came from high-school buddies I haven’t seen in person in nearly 31 years. They remember me as I remember them — as a yearbook photo. No matter how many times I see their current status picture on Facebook, they will always be high school seniors to me, or as Rod Stewart says, forever young.

Other wishes came from people I’ve known only over the past year or two. They only know me as a bald, slightly left-of-center communications director with three kids.

And then, there’s the folks from college and with whom I was friends during my musician days, back when my only concerns were how quickly I could re-string my guitar before the next gig or if I could coax a few more miles out of my old $700 cargo van before breaking down on the side of the interstate.

Every March 26, these distinctly different segments of people come together on my computer screen for a common cause, if tiny and largely insignificant: to wish me happy birthday. To them, it’s a daily distraction they’ll repeat tomorrow, depending on whose name appears next. But to me, it’s MJ Day.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole thing. Do all these people really and truly hope that I’ll have a happy day? I mean, what’s in it for them? Does taking part in this new ritual make them feel better about themselves, kind of like making a charitable donation or paying the bill for the person behind them in line at the drive-thru?

Could be, but I don’t think so. I think we give each other Facebook birthday wishes because it’s a quick, manageable way in this crazy world to make each other happy, if only incrementally. For those 24 hours, the celebrant gets to know that they are on the minds of a bunch of people for, maybe, 15 seconds each. In my case, that equaled some 34 combined minutes that I was thought of by people with whom I haven’t interacted face-to-face in possibly decades.

But you know what? I’ll take it. It’s nice to know that people remember you, if just for a moment.

So to all of you I’ve never met and who will soon celebrate another year of life, let me be the first to say it… 

Happy birthda !!!